First-year starters spark Hempfield, Mt. Pleasant softball teams to PIAA finals
Hempfield softball tends to steer south of the term rebuild. It's more like reload, restock, replenish for a program that finds homes for West Point's rising youth players, blends the all-star talent and turns in one winning season after another in the state's largest classification.
So when five starters graduated after another championship season last June, Hempfield simply opened the cupboard. Waiting patiently for their chance to shine were five new replacements: seniors Jordan Bernard, Stacey Walling and Autumn Beasley, junior Megan Monzo and sophomore Laura Fox.
All five have made significant contributions for the Spartans (26-0), who will try to slam the door shut on their first perfect season when they meet Hazleton (22-3) at 4 p.m. Thursday in the PIAA Class 6A championship at Penn State.
Hempfield, which recently won its third straight WPIAL title, is seeking a state repeat after winning the PIAA 4A title last season.
The Spartans also won the 3A state title in 1999.
“It's our time now. It's our chance to win it all,” said Bernard, who had three hits and three RBIs in an 11-4 semifinal win over Chambersburg on Monday. “We're a different team than last year's, but we prepare the same. We work on making the routine plays and practice the little things every day.”
Hempfield's four-senior nucleus of pitcher Morgan Ryan (Notre Dame recruit), shortstop Ali Belgiovane (Pitt-Johnstown), catcher Madi Stoner (Hillsdale) and second baseman Jenna Osikowicz (Seton Hill) are the support beams holding up the newcomers.
But 26-0 and 40 straight wins? That is a lot to ask of any group, no matter its experience.
“Those four have been part of both teams,” coach Bob Kalp said. “They are the heart and soul. But the new girls have picked right up where the others left off.”
Hempfield graduated an all-Division I outfield in Taylor Hoffman (Liberty), Jordan Sterling (Robert Morris) and Taylor Blevins (Bowling Green). Bernard, Fox and Beasley have stepped in with seamless poise.
Beasley, a Shenandoah recruit, is hitting .441 with a team-best seven home runs and 26 RBIs. Bernard, headed to Wheeling Jesuit, bats .415 with 20 runs and 22 RBIs. and Fox hits .442 with 11 doubles and 26 RBIs.
First baseman Walling, a Pitt-Johnstown recruit, has four homers and 18 RBIs, and Monzo starts at third base and is the team's flex player so she does not bat much.
“I wasn't there two years ago when they lost in the (state) semifinals,” said Fox, the sister of state javelin champion Hayden Fox. “I can't imagine what that was like. It was great to win it last year but to be able to have a part in this year's (final) is a great opportunity. It's an amazing feeling to be 26-0 and to be able to share it with other people. I believe we can win it all again.”
Another lineup adjustment helped ease along the new starters.
Belgiovane, also a UPJ recruit, went from the No. 9 hitter last year to leadoff and has flourished. She has a .420 average and 32 runs.
Kalp said he expected Walling, Bernard and Beasley to blend in. Fox and Monzo have been pleasant surprises.
“It's not easy to make this team,” Ryan said. “The girls that have made it worked hard and realized what they needed to do.”
Monzo plans to do her part defensively Thursday.
“We're not OK with making errors,” she said. “We just focus on every game and keep our heads up.”
Hempfield passed the baton down the order for 14 hits in Monday's victory over District 3 champion Chambersburg. Eight starters had hits.
“That was the first time all year Morgan had that type of game, so it was a nice day for our bats to go bananas,” Kalp said.
While some teams' odds seem to grow longer as they advance through the state bracket, Hempfield's seem to be shrinking.
Though the Spartans have trailed early in three of their six postseason games, their rallies have shown their ability to dominate with a lead or play from behind — the mark of any championship team.
As each domino falls, the team seems to gain confidence.
“We just have to keep working together as a team,” Walling said. “We know 26-0 is a great record but 27-0 sounds pretty good too.”
• For the second straight season, two Westmoreland County teams will play for titles at Penn State. Mt. Pleasant (16-3) joins Hempfield in the finals as the Vikings face Tunkhannock (19-5) at 1:30 p.m. Thursday in the 4A title game in State College.
The Vikings, who returned an abundance of talent and experience from their WPIAL 3A title team, also have received valuable playing time from a pair of first-year starters in freshmen Autumn Shogan and Sydney Kanuch.
Shogun is the designated player, and Kanuch is an outfielder.
Both will look to contribute in the Vikings' first state title-game appearance.
“Their sticks have come through tremendously,” Mt. Pleasant coach Lauren Shaheen said. “Sydney, starting in right, has really come a long way. We've honed in on a lot of different things they've sort of become indispensable to the lineup. Really put some hits out there when we've really needed it to start the rallies.”
Kanuch scored twice, and Shogan had two hits in Monday's 7-2 win over returning state champion Yough in the semifinals.
Mt. Pleasant is trying to duplicate Yough's feat from a year ago: win the state after falling in the WPIAL semifinals.
Like Yough, Mt. Pleasant made the state bracket by way of the WPIAL third-place consolation game.